Last weekend Ian Barrington travelled to Finland to race the Rovaniemi 150 Arctic Winter Race. Here’s Ian’s report from the race:
The sky above Rovaniemi was streaked with wispy clouds on the morning of the race. At 8:30am, the sun hadn’t yet risen above the horizon to inject what little warmth it offers at this latitude. Rovaniemi is on the Arctic circle, and the race I was about to do would take in 150 km of trails north of here on frozen rivers, across ice-covered lakes, and through the endless boreal forest that lay in between.
The temperature was about -4°C. Not as cold as you might expect, but with windchill, the Finnish forecast indicated more like -8°C. In my carefully calculated selection of layers, I was on the limit of not being warm as I stood at the start counting down the minutes until the race was underway.
About 30 bike riders from all over the world were here, along with other people competing on foot or ski. With no first-hand experience of winter racing at this level, I was going to have to apply any lessons learnt along the way very quickly. My preparation had been reasonably strong, and with some input from more experienced friends, I felt I had my kit arranged in good order and knew what to use and when. All that was left was to ride the bike.
At the sound of “Go”, we all raced off up the river towards the first checkpoint at 11 km. The pace was crazy. A small bunch formed quickly and it bore all the hall-marks of an XC race. The fact we were riding bikes on snow with 4″ wide tyres laden with kit and probably weighing 50 lbs+ didn’t seem to matter. I realised fairly quickly this pace was not going to be sustainable, so backed off to a slightly more comfortable level. It took only half an hour to make the first checkpoint at Porohovi.
From River to Forest to Lake
After Porohovi, the route turned off the river and climbed up into the forest. The river had been mostly compacted snow, scuffed with the passage of snow mobiles. In the forest, the snow was less compacted and choice of line and bike handling skill began to separate riders based on all round ability rather than outright fitness – something I was more than thankful for. By lowering my tyre pressures, I found I could more easily hold my line and traverse sections of snow where those around me hadn’t.
At the Sinettajarvi Checkpoint at 21 km, I was caught by a couple of UK riders; Scott and Joe. We emerged onto the frozen Sinettajarvi lake together, where another 10 km of flat snow track seemed to stretch on forever in front of us. The pace quickly ramped up and the three of us we tore up the lake desperately trying to seek out the firm snow amongst the multitude of churned tracks from snow-mobiles. Towards the end of the lake the pace got the better of me and I backed off slightly, eventually pausing to snap a photo back from where we’d come.
The checkpoints of Vittavaara (44 km) and Morajarvi (58 km) came after long isolated runs through sparse forest of pine and birch. The tracks were a joy to ride. Beautiful views across sprase woodland and over rolling hills beyond. However, there was little respite from these trail; up, down or flat – they all still required pedalling input to maintain momentum. I passed through Morajarvi and negotiated the icy bridge of doom we were told about during the race briefing. Last year one racer fell in and got into difficulty as a result, so I took a good deal of care crossing this.
Further on, I arrived at the Peurajarvi Checkpoint, at 70 km. The two UK riders ahead of me were about 20 minutes ahead of me, and I figured I would struggle to close what was clearly becoming a lengthening gap since we’d departed at Sinettajarvi. At best, I thought I might try and stop hemorrhaging minutes.
Reaching the Crux
After Peurajarvi (70 km), a short section of lovely flowing trail brought me to the just-past-half-way point at Kuusilampi (80 km). The gap to Scott and Joe had lengthened to a little over 40 minutes, as I could see the times they’d passed through from the checkpoint sign-in sheet. This point also marked the beginning of a crux in the route, as it was the longest split to the next checkpoint: 35 km. Immediately after this checkpoint the snow became very soft. I lowered the pressure in my tyres, but found they were still punching through the soft snow, so I lowered them some more. With little more than 2 psi in them, they squirmed beneath the weight of me and my gear, but seemed to hold where I could maintain a good line.
It was evident that those before me had pushed, which required me to hold a tight line at the very edge of the trail with minimal margin for error – too much one way or the other and I’d find my wheel churning in the hole of someone’s footprint, or – worse – off the edge of the trail and into two feet of powder snow. This went on for about 8 km, and took more than an hour to cross before eventually reaching the respite of the snow-covered road.
Into the Darkness
Darkness finally descended on my approach to Toramokivalo at 115 km. Since Kuusilampi, it had taken 3 hours to cover the 35 km. I began to realise that my food and water intake hadn’t been enough over this section. The difficulty of the soft snow sections presented few opportunities to eat without stopping, and while I’d eaten on the road it was not enough to replace calories consumed. I was hovering desperately close to the dreaded bonk. At Toramokivalo, I took a few minutes in front of the fire pit and stuffed my face with jelly babies, maltesers and chased it down with some nuts and a caffeine gel.
The end was feeling more within reach now – 24 km to the last checkpoint at Porohovi, and 35 km to the finish. Over the last section I’d managed to hold my 40 minute gap on Scott.
Into the Wind
The route had turned south now, and although the riding had been hard at times, I had enjoyed the benefit of a tailwind. I descended onto Norajarvi Lake, where the headwind did all it could to slow my progress across this frozen expanse. I scanned the horizon to see if I could see anyone ahead, and once I’d got to the other side myself, looked back to see if another rider was close. In both cases, I seemed sufficiently alone that catching someone or being caught was unlikely.
I continued to force down maltesers and jelly babies and pressed on to Porohovi, arriving at 9:00pm exactly – 12 hours since I started. All that was left now was the 11 km back down the river we came up at the start. In a full on headwind, these final kilometers seems to take forever to click past. While the temperature had been below freezing most of the day to prevent any thawing, activity on the river from snowmobiles had churned up the snow a lot. The going was soft and forward progress hard. Legs were tired, the snow sucked at my tyres and wind blew at my chest. There was no-where to hide here. All I could do was grind away at the pedals, seeking out the best line in the snow until the lights of the bridge came into view. Climbing up from the river, I headed to the Hotel where the finish was located. The race clock stopped for me at 22:09, leaving me with a total ride time of 13 hours and 9 minutes to claim 9th place.
Joe had made 6th place, and Scott 9th, finishing just about 50 minutes ahead of me. Scott caught and past one of the Swedish racers on the final river section.
At the front I used a Fat Lion to store a sleeping bag rated to -30°C, a sleeping mat and a bivy bag; all contained in a 22 litre Exped Fold Drybag. Around the harness was fitted a Lioness, which provided easy access to hats, gloves and other small items that I could change during the day in response to prevailing conditions.
At the rear, I used a medium Tiger with a 10 litre dry bag. This contained two pairs of thick socks, a down jacket, spare mid-layer and waterproofs. On the outside, I had my Spot clipped to it, together with a tail-light. Around the dry bag were my googles.
The frame bag was a custom Snow Leopard with a panel opening on the non-drive side, and contained my stove and fuel, small pan, first aid kit, spare thick gloves and some food.
Other easy to reach food was in feedbags, and tools contained in a Wildcat prototype top-tube pack mounted at the seat cluster.